NEW YORK — On Nov. 3, 2022, 39-year-old future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander secured his first World Series win. That it took until then was a nagging quirk in his otherwise storied career. In the final start of his third Cy Young Award-winning season, Verlander labored through five high-traffic innings against a Philadelphia Phillies team that had charmed the country as it rode an infectious hot streak from barely making the postseason to being all knotted up at two games apiece against the big, bad Houston Astros in the World Series.
But Verlander pitched well enough to put the Astros up in the series, and two days later, he and Houston won their second championship in six seasons together.
It seemed to mark the likely end of his time in Houston. Verlander declined the player option in his contract, making him a free agent, and the Astros are known for a principled approach that prevents most splurges. Amid the celebrations that would double as a sendoff, Verlander’s mother thanked manager Dusty Baker for leaving him in Game 5 long enough to check off that conspicuously lacking career achievement.
But, Baker said this week, “I never said goodbye to him.”
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‘It’s exciting seeing all the guys again’
Nine months to the day after that World Series start, Verlander walked into the visiting team clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, where the Astros were opening a weekend series in the Bronx. On Monday, Verlander and the rest of the 2022 World Series champions will go to the White House to be honored. The Astros had a tough time scheduling the trip, which is how it ended up being this late — between a series in New York and one in Baltimore.
If it had been any earlier, Verlander couldn’t have attended. Between winning the World Series with the Astros in November and starting for them Saturday night, he signed with the New York Mets on a record-setting contract.
But when the Mets’ stunning failure this season, despite a staggering payroll, forced the team to tear down at the deadline, Verlander was able to reunite with an Astros team that is starting to look a whole lot like the one that won the World Series less than a year ago.
“It’s exciting seeing all the guys again,” Verlander told reporters Thursday. “It feels a little weird because it hasn’t been that long, so it feels like you don’t miss a beat, and you’re right back in the locker room. But on the other hand, there’s this whole segment that happened. So here I am, still staying in my apartment in New York. It’s a really odd feeling.”
Since Verlander was last on the team, José Abreu replaced Yuli Gurriel at first base. Mauricio Dubón is playing more with Aledmys Díaz gone. Yainer Díaz is backing up the regular backstop, Martín Maldonado. The rookie Hunter Brown, who had a cup of coffee last year, is now a regular in the rotation.
But for the most part, the Astros went into 2023 with Verlander’s departure as perhaps the only high-profile change.
Well, that and the top baseball executive. One day after Verlander opted out, World Series-winning general manager James Click departed the Astros rather than accept a contract offer that was never intended to be appealing enough for him to accept. He was replaced later in the offseason by Dana Brown, who until this week had only ever overseen an Astros team that didn’t employ Verlander.
Brown’s friend and former boss, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, told him when he took the job that he had two priorities in his first year: the draft and the trade deadline.
“You got to nail those two things,” Brown said Anthopoulos told him. As the deadline approached, Brown thought that meant securing reinforcement for the back end of a bullpen that has been heavily taxed already this season.
That changed as soon as it became clear to other teams that the Mets might sell.
“We started to think of ways that we could get him back at that point,” Brown said of Verlander.
‘We need him just to get to the next level’
The deal to reacquire Verlander is something Astros owner Jim Crane would’ve overseen directly. They have a preexisting personal relationship, and Crane acted as GM during the offseason. In fact, Brown had never met or spoken to Verlander until after the deal was officially done. Mets GM Billy Eppler sent him Verlander’s phone number.
“I texted J.V., and I was like, ‘Hey, welcome aboard. When you get a chance, give me a call. I know you’re swamped. A thousand phone calls from friends and family — just hit me up when you get a chance,’” Brown said. “[He] called me back like five, 10 minutes later, and we had an excellent conversation. He was fired up. I was fired up.”
“We need him just to get to the next level,” Maldonado said.
Brown, who was a scout and scouting director his whole career until the Houston job, told Verlander, “Man, I remember as a scouting director, I would have loved to draft you, but you were taken so high. I didn’t get you as a scouting director, but I got you as a general manager.”
Brown got his bullpen reinforcements as well — most notably bringing back Kendall Graveman, who had a 1.64 ERA in the postseason for the 2021 Astros — but outside of Verlander, the most important deadline-ish additions were simply getting back two key pieces of the lineup in José Altuve and Yordan Alvarez.
This season, injuries have meant that the Astros’ top two position players last season — by fWAR or by wRC+ — were both in the lineup for only 13 of the team’s first 101 games. They rejoined the team together just over a week ago, and in eight games back, Altuve is hitting .343, and Álvarez is hitting .413 with three home runs.
The reigning champions have yet to spend a single day in first place so far this season. A Texas Rangers team that lost 94 games last year jumped to an early lead in the AL West and has yet to relinquish it. Since overhauling their rotation in the offseason, the Rangers have kept their foot on the gas. Days before the deadline, Verlander’s counterpart and co-ace on the Mets, Max Scherzer, was traded to Texas as part of an aggressive approach to talent acquisition that turned the team around quickly and signaled the Mets’ sell-off.
Houston, however, is coming. With the Astros now just 1.5 games behind, FanGraphs’ projections give them a slight edge to win the division. It’s not that the Astros are inevitable — although six straight ALCS appearances make it seem that way. It’s that they’re a good team that’s going to be better down the stretch after adding Verlander and getting Altuve and Alvarez back.
“The team that goes on a run will probably win the division,” Brown said. “I think we set ourselves up to go on a nice, little run.”
Now in his sophomore season, 2022 ALCS and World Series MVP Jeremy Peña said he didn’t really appreciate just how incredible his rookie season was until spring training this year.
“Because that’s when I kind of had time to reflect on everything that happened, and I was like, there are great players that go through their whole careers that don’t win a World Series,” he said.
It’s an important bit of perspective to maintain, especially when you’re staring down another six-month regular season. But now, as they head into the stretch, the Astros are basically back to full strength, and they’re done being humble.
“I feel like we have our team right now. And with this team, we go up against anybody,” Peña said. “I feel like we can compete with anybody.
“We’re excited to have the band back together.”